It might surprise you to hear that one of the facets of contemporary printmaking that I find most exciting is projects by artists who work predominately in other mediums. These artists often approach traditional printmaking techniques with a fresh perspective, from which they can frequently discover new ways of using the medium to serve their unique artistic goals. Chris Burden’s 2005 print portfolio Coyote Stories is an excellent example of this exploratory spirit. Burden is infamous for staging intense, physically grueling performances that shocked audiences in the 1970s (some of which were documented on video and are currently on view in the MoMA Media Lounge). In Coyote Stories, Burden cleverly employs several different etching techniques to tell a story suffused with a sense of tension and danger that is familiar from his performance works. The portfolio, which Burden created in collaboration with Santa Monica–based printer and publisher Jacob Samuel, is composed of 10 etchings and 21 digital prints of handwritten vignettes describing the artist’s encounters with coyotes near his home in Southern California’s Topanga Canyon. Knowing its title and subject matter, you might be puzzled to hear that Coyote Stories does not, in fact, contain a single image of a coyote. Instead, Burden tells the story of his run-ins with the animals through representations and direct impressions of the objects and settings he describes in the text. According to Samuel, Burden “[wanted] the coyote to be in the imagination” rather than depicted in the prints. This befits the infamously elusive and sneaky nature of coyotes which, as Burden notes, are known in Native American folklore as “tricksters.”
While the artist maintains that all of the stories in the portfolio are true, many of them have spooky or surreal qualities that might make the reader doubt their veracity. The tension between Burden and the coyotes is subtle in the beginning, but it escalates dramatically as the stories progress. In the vignette titled “First Encounter” the artist describes his feeling of unease upon realizing that a coyote had been “boldly and deliberately watching” through the brush as he walked along a trail in the woods, crunching obliviously on a bag of potato chips (right). Gradually, though, the animals become bolder and more aggressive. In the seventeenth story, “The Finger,” Burden discovers a coyote attacking his small dog. He describes in harrowing detail how he pried the beast off of his beloved pet, then “grabbed handfuls of gravel with [his] left hand and forced the gravel down into the coyote’s mouth and down its throat, attempting to kill it.” After an intense scuffle Burden’s wife Nancy came to the rescue, hitting the coyote over the head with a hammer, but unfortunately only after the beast had clamped its “encrusted, green and filthy teeth” down on the artist’s left hand. His index finger was badly mutilated, launching Burden into a “personal medical nightmare … with intravenous antibiotics, rabies shots, and reconstructive surgery.”
In the image following this story (left), Burden offers evidence of the traumatic encounter. He employs a copper plate covered with a delicate layer of wax known as a “soft ground,” which is able to pick up a precise imprint of whatever is pushed into it; in this case, an impression of the artist’s bony and now-misshapen finger is presented in exact scale, accurate down to its very fingerprints. This exemplifies Burden’s clever use of etching techniques throughout the portfolio. By telling the Coyote Stories through ghostly impressions of objects rather than images of his snarling tormentors, Burden subtly conveys just how frustrated and spooked his encounters with the coyotes left him.